What prompted Stringer’s visit was the release of a new report by a commission he put together to find ways to help small businesses navigate the city’s bureaucracy.
“The reason we’re going to all the boroughs now and touring the area is because we want them to understand that this report has meaning and we can put into play a lot of our recommendations,” Stringer said.
The report lists 60 recommendations, including citywide reforms, state changes and agency improvements. At the top of the list is establishing clear timelines for the approval of permits by city agencies.
Almost a quarter of 282 respondents of a citywide survey said the biggest frustration with city government is agency response times. The report shows business owners are least satisfied with the Department of Buildings (DOB) and the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH).
About 30 percent of small businesses in the survey said they waited six months to get the approvals they needed. Thirteen percent said it took more than a year.
“Many of our small businesses are in the hole before they open their doors because they’ve been paying rent for months and months,” Stringer said, “and they haven’t been able to open the door or turn on the lights because they’re prohibited because of the paperwork.”
Other recommendations include improving language services for business owners with limited English proficiency, making better use of technology and helping owners learn how to comply with rules rather than imposing fines.
Ali Hussein, the owner of Brands & Co., said the biggest problem he faces is rising commercial rent. Hussein said every time he finishes a lease, building owners are asking for much higher rates.
“We are really having a hard time these days because rent is way high and is going higher and higher every year,” he said. “I think we’re dying slowly and slowly.”
Hussein has owned a business for the last 24 years. He moved to his new location at 37-57 82nd Street three years ago from Roosevelt Avenue.
One of the commission’s recommendations is reforming the commercial rent tax. The report said the City Council should reform the tax to help small businesses, especially ones that are being pushed out of Manhattan.
“There’s a lot we can do on the government side to make sure we respect the fact that many of these businesses have to pay a whole lot of rent,” Stringer said. “They have a whole lot of expenses and we should begin to look for a way to reduce that.”
Another issue Hussein’s business has faced is competition from big box store. He said since Queens Center Mall opened, business in the area has slowed down.
“The kids, they go spend their time there during vacation days and school off days,” Hussein said. “The families take their kids over there. Meanwhile, we can’t give all these things for the kids, we have a small store.”
Lesley Ramos, director of the 82nd Street Partnership, said the report “hit the nail on the head” for issues that small businesses are facing. She said many owners are afraid of rent speculation, especially in a “predominately working-poor neighborhood.”
One major challenge, Ramos said, was that many local businesses depend on foot traffic. During Thursday’s tour of small businesses in the area, the entrance to the 82nd Street station on the 7 train was closed. Ramos said business owners never got an advanced notice of the closure.
“Who suffers? The businesses because there’s less traffic,” Stringer said. “Look at the signage. They look like they took the sign out of the dumpster and just threw it up against the subway station. This has got to end.”
One of the co-chairs of the commission is Michael Lambert, who is also executive director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Gateway Business Improvement District (BID). He said the report took a “bottom-up” approach by hearing directly from business owners about the impact of different adversities.
Lambert said one of the major takeaways of the report was that many people don’t know about a lot of the opportunities and programs the city offers. Another takeaway is that city agencies could improve how they interact with small business owners.
Another item that was highlighted, Lambert said, was helping address language barriers. He said there should be more information available in multiple languages.
“This is Jackson Heights,” he said. “I believe there are probably some 150 languages spoken right here. You can’t have information in too many languages.”
Lambert said he hopes the commission can take these recommendations and work closely with elected officials to see where changes can be made, including new legislation. He noted that Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy, who chairs the City Council’s Small Business Committee, is on the commission. Jessica Lappin, the commission’s co-chair and president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, is also a former councilwoman.
“I think the next thing is to let people absorb the report, distill its content down and then see in buckets what the next steps need to be,” Lambert said, “be it creating new legislation, making rule changes or marketing services that already exist.”